Saturday, February 21, 2009

Explicplication

I've no idea how long I've been listening to Pavement. Actually I do - having bought the expanded version of Slanted and Enchanted on Pitchfork's recommendation back in the wee months of 2003 - but the rhetorical elegance of that first sentence was hard to pass. If anything, the seeds for this post were planted close to a year ago, when, as my friend Katherine and I were working on a project for physics involving the construction of a bridge from pasta, I introduced her to Pavement, and more importantly, introduced her to their magnum opus Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain.

So let's fastforward in time - now Katherine has a blog, which is really worth your patronage if you ask me. On her blog, she has written up an explication
(link goes to Merriam Webster's) of the lyrics to what is perhaps Pavement's only MTV hit (remember, this is back when they played indie music) - the ironic "Cut Your Hair". A lot of my reading of this song is based upon my reading of Michael Azerrad's Our Band could Be your Life, which, though not essential as a work of prose, is essential as a documentation of the rise of "indie" ethics into a mainstream dominated by glam metal, hair bands, and power ballads. What that book only hints at, though, is the end result of this process, when all of the major labels went and converged on Seattle looking to sign seemingly any band with flannel shirts and long hair - beginning the dry, watered-down grunge-pop and nu-metal sounds of "post-grunge" as we know it.


I still haven't read her explication, which I plan to do right after I finish mine.

The lyrics will be in this font and size. The analyses will be in this font and size.

I.
Darlin' don't you go and cut your hair
Do you think it's gonna make him change?

What exactly the "hair" refers to in this song is a bit ambiguous. The contrast between long hair and short hair exists in Azerrad's analysis of the hardcore and post-hardcore scenes of the Eighties, with cutting one's hair being seen as a rite of passage into the culture. Azerrad connects long hair with the flowing prog-rock and jam-rock of the hypocritical hippie culture, and demonstrates how the hardcore punks connected it with the excess of those genres, in the quest to strip down rock and roll. Additionally, we could see the hair in terms of Eighties "glam metal" (Guns 'n' Roses, Poison, Kiss, etc...) or - most likely - in terms of the grunge movement. Invoking Azerrad's analysis of the founding of Sub Pop, the long hair of grunge was calculated, with the intent of the common appearance to create the illusion of a common Seattle scene to foriegn record buyers. Long hair was essentially associated with grunge because that was what Sub Pop wanted. What I think we have here is a grunge rocker, in grunge's dying days, debating whether to make a superficial change in appearance to remain commercially viable, perhaps even on a major label.

"i'm just a boy with a new haircut"
And that's a pretty nice haircut

Of course, this being a Pavement song, it's most impossible for Malkmus to posit a serious point without somehow invoking his serious wit. We could say here that Malkmus is speaking up for musical "authenticity" - whatever the Hell that is - by deriding the grunge rocker's choice to remain commercially viable instead of creating music for the sake of making music. I'm reminded of the days of disco - when seemingly every rock act, from Kiss to the Rolling Stones to James Brown, made a disco record in a weak attempt to stay afloat. Additionally, I'm reminded of M. Ward's new record, Hold Time; on that, he's borrowing a lot (in my opinion) from Deerhunter-esque post-punk seemingly to stay afloat in a changing indie community.

Charge it like a puzzle, hit me wearin' muzzles
Hesitate to die, look around, around, the second drummer's drowned
His telephone is found

I don't have an interpretation for these lines. The reference to the second drummer could be a meta-reference to Pavement themselves (they had two drummers), a reference to their heroes The Fall (who had two drummers), or a reference to This is Spinal Tap, where seemingly every one of the fictional band's drummers died in some freak accident. The Spinal Tap remark yields an interesting remark, as Spinal Tap were meant as a parody of Seventies' big-hair, tights-and-Spandex glam metal. Perhaps Malkmus is making the subtle connection between the commercialization of grunge and glam metal itself.

II.
Music scene is crazy, bands start up each and every day
I saw another one just the other day
A special new band

We see this routinely at the radio station. Whether it be "RIYL Sonic Youth, Guided by Voices, and Pavement" on that crappy new The Takeover UK disc some arbitrary major label sent us, or the elaborate artist bios we get sent by the big indie promoters, the labels and promoters will do whatever it takes to get us to notice their product in the sea of new music. Of course it fails. I love Malkmus' inflection on the word "special" - almost as if to show that he thinks it reeks of fail as well. It's enough to make me want to invite him to the station so he can comment on the new releases as we decide what's crap and what's not.

I remember lying
I don't remember a line
I don't remember a word

This seems to continue where the past three lines left off. Perhaps the only thing "special" about these bands is how much they sounded like Nirvana, or the Pixies, or Pearl Jam - and how much money could be made with a good one-hit wonder. Incidentially, "Cut Your Hair" itself would make Pavement a one-hit wonder in some people's eyes

At that point, is there an incentive to remember a "line" or a "word"?

But I don't care, I care, I really don't care
Did you see the drummer's hair?

III.
Advertising looks and chops a must
No big hair!!

Seems like the speaker in the song has switched from Malkmus to some arbitrary major label. By asking for "advertising looks" and "no big hair", Malkmus is commenting on a part of the music business that unfortunately exists at all levels: the fact that labels often seek bands that "look" and "sound" "trendy". Again, the big hair reference ties in post-grunge to glam metal somehow (see verse 1). This could also be a comment on so-called music "scenes" (see verse 2) themselves - that they often are the ideas of record label execs (the Sub Pop example from earlier, but also consider the Sex Pistols)

Songs mean a lot
When songs are bought
And so are you-

I think this is Malkmus' character narrating again. "Means a lot" seems to connect to the sarcastically-used "special" in verse 2; Malkmus, being Malkmus, has to open the book of wordplay again and steal from it. But this, like verse two, asks questions about what exactly musical authenticity is, and whether we can get it from major labels. There is a famous essay by superproducer Steve Albini, who gained fame playing abrasive hardcore guitar for Big Black before producing (though he prefers the term "engineering", as in his mind, the producer is not responsible for the band's creativity or lack thereof) for bands as diverse as Nirvana and Godspeed You! Black Emperor. This essay answers said question by saying that major labels suck the drive to make music from bands by placing them in debt to them financially - connecting to the lyrics yet again.

Bitch, rant down to the practice room (?)

Seemingly every lyrics site interprets the words said in this line differently. No comments.

Attention and fame so
Career, career, career....

Consensus: Back in senior-year English, we had to do similar explication to the novels we read. It was tiring and took up more time than it should have. As much as I love Pavement, writing this explication just sapped whatever creativity I had from me. Nonetheless, Malkmus provides a reference-laden, postmodern view of musical "authenticity" by examining both glam metal and post-grunge, with the long hair of both genres serving as the song's primary motif.

No comments: